20 March 2007

Class categories

This post about understanding social class in the US has evolved and developed over time. It started with the overview of the Fussell system, and I kept adding to it.

Ruby K. Payne — different cultures

The book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is chaotic but vivid & insightful. It gets a lot from a simple split into only upper, middle, and lower classes, espeically on the cultural elements of class. It talks a lot about what each group understand s as “common knowledge.” One often sees a flyer circulated summarizing Payne’s system:

Moneyto be spentto be managedto be invested
Personalitysenses of humorachievementconnections
Social emphasisinclusionself-sufficiencyexclusion
Timein the momentagainst futuretradition
Educationabstractsuccess & moneymaintaining connections
Languagecasual registerformal — negotiationformal — networking
Family structurematriarchalpatriarchalwho has money
Driving forcesrelationshipsachievementfinancial & social

Sideriahas — economic vs social class

Much as Payne does, this long post underlines the functioning of the cultural differences between classes.

It is a common misconception that the primary obstacle to being in a much higher class is money to afford the things by which one performs that class. The limiting factor is not money, it is this: it is impossible to join a culture the ways of which you know nothing. You may come by money, but the ignorance of how to use it to perform that higher class will keep you out as adamantly as if there were a wall built around it.

Brad Plumer — types of power

Capturing the entire thing here, since the archived blog post is hard to dig through:

What do we mean when we say “middle class”? Former Rep. Martin Frost had an editorial yesterday titled “Democrats Must Reconnect With Middle Class.” He cites a new survey showing that, among white voters making between $30,000 to $75,000 a year, some 45 percent of the vote, Bush beat Kerry by 22 points. Now there are a lot of ways to slice those numbers up, granted—one could start by noting that this is such a broad category that it more or less defeats analysis; of course the Democrats need to do better among a set of people making up 45 percent of the vote … really, now — but my question for now is this: are income levels useful for defining “middle class”?

One way to define class — and this is hardly an original thought — is to look not at income but at power. Power in the workplace. Power in the world. The working class, from this point of view, can be defined as those who do their jobs under strict supervision, have little control over what they do or how fast they do it, and have no power over anyone else. Notice I picked this definition somewhat deliberately; these are precisely the sorts of people who, under labor law, can join a union. Obviously the definition’s not hard and fast. I’m in a union, after all, because at work I technically get no input into the Mother Jones budget, and have precisely zero authority over any other employee. So that's the law. In practice, though, I do have the ability to hire, promote, and fire interns, I get to work at my own pace, and have wide discretion over what projects I want to pursue. So I’d put myself in the middle class, even if I make far less, income-wise, than many who would be considered working class. Intuitively, this classification makes far more sense than calling me “working class” and, say, a well-paid, unionized electrician “middle class.”

So that’s the working class. According to economist Michael Zweig, in his book The Working Class Majority, these workers make up some 62 percent of the labor force. This is your “typical” American right here. Way up at the other end of the spectrum are the owners and capitalists and rulers. They run boards of directors, control budgets, make economic decisions that affect thousands of workers, that sort of thing. Again, citing Zweig, this is about 2 percent of the labor force. (Meanwhile, the owners and capitalists with real power, serious national and political power, probably number no more than a couple thousand.)

In the middle is, well, the middle class. That includes everyone, I think, from small business owners to the foreman on the floor to doctors, corporate attorneys, senior managers, accountants. These are the folks with some significant amount of power and authority, are generally able to socialize with each other, but are still “in the middle” — they’re not the ones making the final decisions. (Even many small business owners lack the sort of authority and autonomy that large business owners and CEOs and COOs and what have you can wield.) Doing the math, this is about 36 percent of the labor force, and can stretch from workers making $25,000 or less to $300,000 or more.

So that’s another way to look at class, a very Marxist one, as I said, and one that isn’t necessarily based on income levels. Looking at “why class matters” is far beyond the scope of a single post, but here’s a question: From a political or policy standpoint, does this distinction even make a difference? Yes, I think so, but it often depends. Some issues, like the unaffordability of health care, or Medicaid cuts, are going to concern low-income voters more than middle- and high-income voters, regardless of class. (Although health care costs are, obviously, fast becoming a concern of middle-income voters too.) Same with welfare, or predatory lending, or public transportation.

On the other hand, labor issues are going to concern working class voters of all income levels. Unions, after all, aren’t just about getting better pay and benefits. They’re also about gaining some semblance of autonomy and respect for workers: that’s why unions devote so much energy fighting for various workplace rules and grievance procedures and standards for discipline and seniority; so that workers aren’t treated as arbitrary and expendable “labor inputs.” Of course, not everyone in the working class sees this as important; plenty of workers would prefer to just get along with management rather than act as a countervailing force. (Plenty of workers think they’ll launch out of the “working class” someday.) But unionization is a working class concern.

So, too, are things like job instability. My guess is that many “middle class” workers, regardless of income, are more sanguine about fluctuations in the job market, because they’re far more optimistic about their upward mobility. On a personal level, for instance, outsourcing worries me far, far less than it might someone from the “working class” making far more than me, if only because he has less control over his work; in important ways he’s, well, at the mercy of capitalists. That’s an important and likely a real divide between the middle and working classes, although I think it needs to be developed a bit more. But those infamous polls that show that 40 percent of Americans either believe they’re in the top 1 percent of the income bracket or will be soon? I think we've found them. And I haven’t even said anything about those much-vaunted “social issues,” which could very likely intersect with class divides in important ways. Education is a major factor too.

At any rate, damned if I know what the Democrats need to do to win elections. But I do know that dividing up voter blocs by income level isn’t the only way to look at the world, and it may be unduly constraining or misleading. Class, in the sense used here, still matters.

There is a bit of interesting discussion in comments on an earlier post of mine about it.

John Michael Greer — types of income

In the course of an old post Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment on the Archdruid Report has a sharp little observation about social class categories which rhymes with Plumer’s point which gives him four classes.

It so happens that you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one remarkably simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking — there are exceptions, which I’ll get to in a moment — it’s from one of four sources:

  • returns on investment
  • a monthly salary
  • an hourly wage
  • a government welfare check

People who get most of their income from one of those four things have a great many interests in common, so much so that it’s meaningful to speak of the American people as divided into an investment class, a salary class, a wage class, and a welfare class.

It’s probably necessary to point out explicitly here that these classes aren’t identical to the divisions that Americans like to talk about. That is, there are plenty of people with light-colored skin in the welfare class, and plenty of people with darker skin in the wage class. Things tend to become a good deal more lily-white in the two wealthier classes, though even there you do find people of color. In the same way, women, gay people, disabled people, and so on are found in all four classes, and how they’re treated depends a great deal on which of these classes they’re in. If you’re a disabled person, for example, your chances of getting meaningful accommodations to help you deal with your disability are by and large considerably higher if you bring home a salary than they are if you work for a wage.

It may not surprise you that one must caveat someone naming “government welfare” as a social class as having unwholesome politics.

Paul Fussell — expanding the categories

Paul Fussell’s book Class: A Guide Through the American Status Systems has a unique breakdown; here’s a summary of his categories:

Top Out of Sight

Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don’t want us to.

Upper Class

Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don’t have to work. They refer to tuxes as “dinner jackets”.

Upper Middle

Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn’t be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.

Middle Class

The great American majority, sort of.

High Proletarian (or “prole”)

Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term “proletarian.”

Middle Prole

Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)

Low Prole

Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask “Would you like fries with that, sir?” as a career.


Working and non-working poor.

Bottom Out of Sight

Street people, the most destitute in society. “Out of sight” because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don’t vote.)

That summary omits a non-class Fussell talks about:

Category X

Bohemian-ish people who try to withdraw from the class system.

This resembles my own taxonomy, below.

Michael O. Church — three ladders

The long blog post The 3-ladder system of social class in the U.S. offers a very elaborate and instructive system.

Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class. I’ll attempt to explain how this three-ladder system works, what it means, and also why it is a source of conflict. The ladders I will assign the names Labor, Gentry, and Elite.


What I’ve called the Labor, Gentry, and Elite “ladders” can more easily be described as “infrastructures”. For Labor, this infrastructure is largely physical and the relevant connection is knowing how to use that physical device or space, and getting people to trust a person to competently use (without owning, because that’s out of the question for most) these resources. For the Gentry, it’s an “invisible graph” of knowledge and education and “interestingness”, comprised largely of ideas. For the Elite, it’s a tight, exclusive network centered on social connections, power, and dominance. People can be connected to more than one of these infrastructures, but people usually bind more tightly to the one of higher status, except when at the transitional ranks (G4 and E4) which tend to punt people who don’t ascend after some time. The overwhelmingly high likelihood is that a person is aligned most strongly to one and only one of these structures. The values are too conflicting for a person not to pick one horse or the other.


The relationship between the Gentry and Elite is one of open rivalry, and that between the Gentry and Labor is one of distrust. What about Labor and the Elite? That one is not symmetric. The Elite exploit and despise Labor as a class comprised mostly of “useful idiots”. How does Labor see the Elite? They don’t. The Elite has managed to convince Labor that the Gentry (who are open about their cultural elitism, while the Elite hides its social and economic elitism) is the actual “liberal elite” responsible for Labor’s misery over the past 30 years. In effect, the Elite has constructed an “infinity pool” where the Elite appears to be a hyper-successful extension of Labor, lumping these two disparate ladders into an “us” and placing the Gentry and Underclass into “them”.

I have constructed a summary diagram, to clarify an important point of his:

People can improve their incomes dramatically, but it’s rare for a person to move more than one or two rungs in a lifetime.
the ladders connect at a two-rung difference, with [⋯] ‘social equivalencies’ that don’t involve a change in social status, so they’re the easiest to transitions to make (in both directions)

Labor Gentry Elite
billionaires, drug kingpins, third-world despots
what most Americans think of as “upper class” or “old money”
Cultural influencers
widely recognized as smart, creative, and above all interesting
the “working rich”: law-firm partners, senior investment bankers, corporate executives
from elite colleges, doing interesting, respected work
trying to “break in”: entrepreneurs & junior partners
hardworking small business owners & landlords
“upper-middle class” with college degrees & professional jobs
“middle class” income & security like plumbers & electricians
young people entering the Gentry, usually from High-Skill Labor
“working poor”
generationally poor

In a follow-up, Church has more cutting observations, saying that all of this three-ladder machinery obfuscates how there are really just two classes.

I do have strong thoughts on how that article has aged. At the time, I was unduly sympathetic to my native social class, the Gentry. This blinded me to something I had begun to suspect, and that Alex Danco articulated — that a sociological “middle class” is a comfortable illusion, a story capitalist society tells itself to mask its barbaric nature, performing a similar function to the notoriously clueless middle manager, Michael Scott.


To do Marx justice, we must note that Marx did acknowledge a middle class’s existence: he wrote on the petite bourgeoisie, the small business owners and independent professionals. He predicted, correctly, that they would be losers in the ongoing class war — that machinations of the politically-connected, mostly-hereditary haute (or “true”) bourgeoisie would push them to the margins and, eventually, throw them into the proletariat. Marx did not loathe the petite bourgeoisie and he did not overlook their existence — he simply recognized them as powerless relative to market forces and the movements of history. What they gain through innovation and comparative advantage, they lose over time to the superior political and economic power of the real elites, who never compete fairly.

If you have an interest in the tech industry, Church’s comments marry well with Putt’s Law Of Failure from his darkly satirical book Putt’s Law and the Successful Technocrat.

My personal taxonomy

I am not a real sociologist, but for what it’s worth, this is how I categorize class in the US, making quite a few fine distinctions among folks who may overlap in wealth and income but do different kind of work and have different culture and distinct social networks. Like Church, I think a simply linear heirarchy is misleading.

Note that practically all of the people ranging from the high professionals to the low working class in my system conceive of themselves as “middle class”.

High aristocracy

Permanent wealth sufficient to personally weild political power. As Fussel observes, these folks spend their wealth making themselves invisible.

Middle aristocracy

Permanent wealth sufficient to afford the trappings of wealth.

Low aristocracy

Permanent wealth sufficient to not need to work.

Minor celebrities
Major celebrities

This includes not only obvious movie and pop stars but also big-name politicians, a handful of entrepeneurs like Bill Gates, atheletes, and so forth. Fame is a different kind of currency than wealth, and it comes with its own social circle and culture. “Major” celebrities have a permanent place in this class; “minor” celebrities cannot count on it.

Nouveaux riche

Entrepeneurs, CEOs, and so forth who have made enough money that they don't have to work … but almost certainly continue to work, and work hard. These people may have wealth comparable to the middle aristocrats; at the point where they have as much money as high aristos they are better conceived as part of that artistocratic class, while at the low end they blur into the richest end of high professionals.

High professionals

People with a secure place making a prosperous living with some valuable mental skill — successful doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives — who do not make enough money that they can just quit working.

Low professionals

Just about everybody else who works in offices, from architects to customer service representatives, which means a broad range of actual income.


People who make their living with some valuable knowledge: professors, scientists, and other experts of various kinds, including many successful artists. As with low professionals, this includes a broad range of actual incomes.

Intellectuals are often mistaken for professionals, but they differ in grounding their position in knowledge rather than skill. And they have a distinctly different culture, recognizable in intellectuals having more (and stranger) books in their houses.


People who devote themselves to art or entertainment (though that last may simply mean entertaining themselves). Musicians, actors, bartenders, sex workers, nightclub bouncers, twenty-four hour party people. Keeping late or odd hours is a key defining characteristic. Incomes vary dramatically in this class, though they tend to be low.

High working class

People who make their living through physical work and have a valuable skill, like plumbers or construction workers.

Low working class

People who make a steady living through physical work, but lack skills valued by the labor market.


People working, often working hard, but perpetually worried about money because they’re a paycheque away from economic disaster and homelessness without a route to improve that situation.


People unable to connect to the above-board economy. This ranges from the hungry homeless to folks currently hustling up wealth on a par with the upper end of the low working class … but without any stability even at the day-to-day scale.


d a r k c h i l d e said...

One of the big enlightenments of my youthful, teenage years was found in 10th grade when my economics teacher explained the economic catagories and the level of weath/income needed for each of them.

I had grown up with my mother and father telling me how we were wealthy and "better off" than many others. I remember being told how to be nice to those who "don't have as much" and other things that would indicate to my young mind that we were in the upper-middle class.

Then I say the statistics and learned that we were actually in the LOWER middle-class and barely scraping along to fit in there!

My mother just wanted SO MUCH to be in the upper class that she convinced herself (and me for a while) that we WERE there...

perspective...it's quite a thing!

I like your break-down of class categories...but it is interesting how you are using the groups on an "effort"-scale rather than a wealth-scale.

batojar said...


I think the phenomenon you describe is one of the primary reasons political discussions of class (and usually the subsequent discussions of taxes) are often non-starters in this America. *Most* Americans consider themselves rich or very well off (except those in the working poor category and below - they know what the score is)or envision themselves soon to be rich. They don't want to tax "themselves" even though they are largely by no means rich -and generally unlikely to become truly rich.

Well, that phenomenon, and a lot of very poor framing on the part of the Left.

Anonymous said...

Was just discussing the vagaries of class while in Britain last weekend.

These catagories are helpful to the conversation.

Kate said...

Are you ill? Traveling? Bored with blogging?

Miss these insights into your life and times.



J'Carlin said...

I find a hidden but critical subclass of the Professional and Intellectual classes that I call change effectors (borrowed from biology). These are the people who understand the impact of their particular contribution on the larger society and change that impact for the improvement of that society.
All to many professionals and intellectuals are essentially assembly line workers. The project falls off the feed line, bounces off the floor, is picked up, placed on the white board, solved, and the button pushed for the next one on the feed line.
The change effector has an extra white board where "what did I learn" is noted before the "next" button is pushed. And uses that accumulated knowledge to change the way the line works.
These people are the Salman Khans who see beyond the endless stream of lecture halls, day after day, to a new way of teaching. To pick one famous example.

Jonathan Korman said...

Carlin, there's definitely something to your point about how people with different temperaments approach their work and affect the organizations in which they operate. But I'm not sure that this tells us much about the social-political order of social class.